Over the final days of the campaign, CJR is publishing a series of pieces under the headline “Ask Obama This” and “Ask Romney This,” suggesting themes and questions that reporters and pundits can consider posing to the presidential candidates. This installment focuses on questions that could (and should) be asked of both candidates, but that seems particularly pressing for the incumbent.

Criminal justice reform may top the list of third-rail political issues to be strictly avoided on the campaign trail. And, perhaps as expected, it didn’t rear its head at any of the presidential debates.

Politicians from both major parties tend to shy away from crime, unless it’s to promise to throw criminals under the jail.This can always change, though, and it’s worth noting that violent crime rose 18 percent last year, according to a new report from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, the first rise in two decades.

One of the most devastating debate moments in the history of televised debates came in 1988, when Bernard Shaw of CNN, the moderator, asked Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [the Governor’s wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Dukakis said, “No, I don’t, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life.” The passionless answer may have been consistent with his policies, but many voters saw Dukakis as unfeeling.

Flash forward nearly a quarter of a century, and a different calculus is at hand. As the Willie Horton ads from that 1988 Dukakis/George H.W. Bush race made plain, the image of the black male as predator evokes deep fears in sections of the electorate and the society. This can be true even when the overall facts don’t support the logic of those fears.

For example, a 2011 compilation of essays and studies by the Aspen Institute (Race, Crime, and Punishment: Breaking the Connection in America) showed the ways in which African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately monitored, arrested, and incarcerated compared to whites who commit the same crimes. The federal US Sentencing Commission, for another, finds that black drug criminals receive 10 percent more time than whites who commit the same crimes.

So how do such fears play out in policy debates when the sitting president is black? Imagine this for a second. President Barack Obama—a black biracial man—steps out in the final days of the campaign and says that he will push a major initiative to create a prison-to-education-to-work program.

OK, it is a stretch. The political calculus could be devastating, given that race regularly re-emerges (note the recent “gotcha” video, Obama discussing his former pastor, which recently made air in Fox News circles, though it was from 2007).

Still, there are certainly many criminal justice problems to address, and they affect budgets, communities, and thousands of American families. Incarceration in America costs tens of billions of dollars each year—in 2008, $52 billion for state incarcerations alone. And when all those prisoners get out, as most of them do, what do we get?

Rehabilitation programs have often lost ground to work programs run by or with private companies. American prisoners run telephone banks and make bluejeans, but a smaller percentage than in the past are enrolled in higher education; and the educational level of prisoners remains deficient compared to their generational cohorts not incarcerated. A 2003 Justice Policy Institute study found: “In 1991, 57 percent of State prisoners reported participating in education programs.” At that time, the prison population was approximately 792,535.

By 1997, the number of prisoners who reported participating in correction education programs dropped to 52 percent while the prison population had grown to 1,176,564.” The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act eliminated the ability of prisoners to access Pell Grants, and diminished the rates of prisoners attaining higher education.

Journalists and pundits ought to pose tough questions for the president about criminal justice policy, no matter what the fallout. Here are a few lines of questioning that local and national reporters might pursue:

Incarceration and sentencing disparities:

• Since black and Latino prisoners are given more jail time than whites who commit the same crimes—and poor prisoners also face harsher penalties than wealthier ones, who can presumably afford better lawyers—What mechanisms can you as the president put in place to ensure a more equitable justice system?

Re-entry, Education, Jobs, and Citizenship:

• How will you address the employment needs of ex-offenders, who often go from jail to street to jail, or jail to persistent unemployment?
• How do you reinvigorate a prison education system battered by cuts?
• How do you address the deep state-by-state disparities in voting laws for ex-felons, with some barred from voting for life while others can literally vote by prison? Is this a states’ rights issue you will not touch, or will you prompt, at the very least, an examination of whether allowing ex-felons to vote is warranted for the good of our democracy?

Regulation of for-profit prisons and prison work:

• Would the president consider providing more oversight and regulation of the for-profit prison industry, ensuring that debacles like the Pennsylvania “Kids for Cash” racketeering scandal don’t happen again?

• Should there be more regulation of what kinds of work for for-profit companies prisoners do, and the compensation they receive for it (even if deferred into an account used for education or home-buying)?

In a nutshell, one key set of questions could be:


Mr. President, as both parties look for a way to shrink government spending, is your administration willing to do an audit of criminal justice policies’ cost, fairness, and effectiveness, at the federal, state, and local levels? What will your administration do to ensure that with the tens of billion of dollars spent on incarceration, recidivism rates fall and more ex-offenders reunite with their families, find work, and have a chance to make a positive contribution?

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Farai Chideya is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute